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LEADERSHIP (9) Elders in the Church

Shepherd Among His Flock

Shepherd Among His Flock

New Zealand sheep farmers have learned how to raise sheep without the constant, personal attention of a shepherd. Drive the countryside in that “Land Down Under” and you will see many flocks of sheep out in the paddocks without a human being in sight. Hills are dotted with the white of grazing sheep – which are kept from straying by the fences that are everywhere.

In Jesus’ day, there were no fences to keep sheep from straying. That was the job of the shepherd. When sheep were without a shepherd, they were easy prey to every marauding predator, whether animal or man. They were also in constant danger of simply wandering away from the flock and becoming lost.


This is why Paul was so concerned with establishing competent leadership in each congregation. Without congregational leadership, the churches would become prey to the predations of false teachers – and to the attrition of people merely straying away. When Jesus looked at the multitude who came to hear him, he saw them as “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36). Churches without godly, competent leaders are in the same position today.

Elders played a prominent role in the leadership of churches in the New Testament. In Acts 14:23 the evangelists “Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church” they had planted. Paul charged his son in the faith, Titus, “The reason I left you in Crete was that you might straighten out what was left unfinished and appoint elders in every town, as I directed you” (Titus 1:5). Detailed standards were given for the sort of men to be ordained as elders in Titus 1:6-9 and also in 1 Timothy 3:2-7.

Until leaders were in place in the congregation, something was “unfinished.” Paul and Barnabas appointed elders within months after churches were established. Titus and Timothy were, evidently, to treat the organization of the churches with some degree of urgency. Yet many churches today go blithely on their way for years with no attempt to find or train qualified leadership.

Usually these are small congregations without a large pool of men from which to select leaders. Also, in the absence of obviously qualified men, many congregations are hesitant to appoint men whose suitability is questionable. This hesitancy is heightened by our customary practice of naming elders “for life.” The removal of an elder from the position is a critical time in the life of a church. Rather than face this crisis, many churches prefer to “get along” without elders.

Now churches can exist without appointed leadership. The churches Paul and Barnabas established continued for some months before elders were appointed. However, churches cannot exist very long without leadership. Pacesetters emerge from every group. Some people begin to take the initiative – and leaders appear. Otherwise, the group really does sit around and look at one another while members begin to drift away. So the issue is not whether a church will have leaders or not. The question is, “What kind of guidance will the church have?”

Unless a church will seek out or develop spiritually qualified men, it will have leaders after the flesh and not after the Spirit. In the absence of godly, Holy Spirit-made-leaders (see Acts 20:28), other leadership will emerge by default. That is why so many churches lurch along without clear direction. Carnal men cannot adequately lead a spiritual body. There is no substitute for good leadership.

In the absence of “qualified” men (what this means is discussed later in this post), it is better not to appoint unqualified men. It is better to have no elders than the wrong kind of elders. But, the church needs to establish a high priority on training and developing qualified leadership. Until the church does this, that church will have serious “unfinished” business.


Elders are involved in virtually every phase of the work of the local congregation as they “direct the affairs of the church.” They teach and preach (1 Timothy 5:19). They visit the sick (James 5:16). They administer benevolence (Acts 11:30). They watch for souls (Hebrews 13:17). “And we urge you, brothers, warn those who are idle, encourage the timid, help the weak, be patient with everyone” (1 Thessalonians 5:14). This last text does not specifically mention elders, but it does refer to “those who are over you in the Lord” (verse 12).

None of these works is exclusively for elders. Other people are involved in all of them. As leaders of the church, however, elders should be active in all of them. This does not mean that every elder, regardless of his individual gifts and opportunities, must be involved in everything the church does. What I mean to suggest here is that every elder should be involved in the work of the church and that there are few (if any) activities of the church that are to be “off limits” to elders as participants. It is better for women to do some works done of caring for the widows, not the elders! This is one example of a sort of work better left to others.

Churches often want a young person to be a youth leader. Some of the best youth leaders are older people, sometimes an elder of the church, who love youth and are themselves still young at heart. When this is the case, the youth usually love this youth leader even more than they would one of their own age group!

Churches sometimes financially supported elders who, not only ruled well, but were also working as teachers and preachers within the church.

The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, “Do not muzzle the ox while it is treading out the grain,” and “The worker deserves his wages.” – 1 Timothy 5:19

It is likely that many churches in the New Testament era had elders who preached for them. It is unfortunate that we have moved away from this habit. While some congregations have appointed their preacher as an elder after years of service with the local church, there are fewer who have selected an elder to be the preacher.

Peter eloquently describes the work of the elder. “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under you care, serving as overseers, … being examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:1-4). This is similar to Paul’s charge to the Ephesian elders: “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God which he bought with his own blood” (Acts 20:28).

These last two passages use three words of the same men: elders, overseers, and shepherds. “Shepherds” and “overseers” refer to the work; “elder” refers to the man who does the work.

Be Shepherds of the Flock of God

“Shepherd” is a verb in these passages. This is what they do. As shepherds, the elders are to feed, tend and care for the flock. They are to seek the strays, bind up the wounded and protect the flock – not only from external enemies, but also from “fat sheep” who drive others away from the flock (Ezekiel 34:20-21). The noun form of the word appears in Ephesians 4:11 as “pastors.” Elders were pastors in New Testament churches. An earlier post dealt with “The Shepherd Model of Leadership.” That, in the context of the local congregation, describes the way the elder is to do his work.

The elders are not necessarily the only pastors within the church. Many other people also act in nurturing and teaching the church. Others also seek the wanders. Others bind up the wounded and those hurting from the trials of life. Someone put it this way: “Not all pastors are elders, but all elders are to be pastors.” Any spiritual person can restore one who has fallen (Galatians 6:1-2). This is the work of a pastor. Elders are to be especially active and skilled in this work of encouraging the fainthearted

The Holy Spirit Has Made You Overseers

“Overseer,” also translated “bishop” in some versions, is from the Greek word episkopos (episcopos). This is the source of the word Episcopalian, the name of one main stream Protestant denomination that has “Bishops” to govern it. New Testament use of this word is restricted to those overseeing the affairs of the local church to meet its needs. James used the verb form of this word to say we are “…to look after” orphans and widows in their distress (James 1:27). In the venerable King James Version, this is “visit the fatherless and the widows in their affliction.” The literal meaning is to see that they have what they need. In secular usage, the word refers to the superintendent of a job who is there to see that the work proceeds properly.

The work of the overseer also involves the task of “watching for the souls” for the congregation in their care. A previous post spoke of the work of the watchman. The watchman is to warn, not to coerce. The elder has all of the authority of God behind him when he warns a sinner of the error of his way; he has no power of coercion at all. The elder can persuade; he cannot force others to act as he encourages them to do or to become what he is leading them to be. The elder can persuade by direct teaching, by example, or by personal reproof. He cannot compel someone to accept what he teaches.

Of course, if a person persists in acting in an unruly, ungodly way the entire church should be involved in disciplining that person. This can lead, ultimately, to turning that individual over to Satan for the purpose of destroying the flesh to save the Spirit (1 Corinthians 5:4-5).


Elder is used to describe the man, whereas shepherd and overseer describe his work. What sort of man must an elder be? He must be the kind of man who can be a shepherd of souls and an overseer of the needs and affairs of the church. That is, he must be a man able to do the work.

The description of these men in 1 Timothy 3:1ff and Titus 1:5ff lays out spiritual qualities plus the experience and skills necessary to do this work. Nothing is there arbitrarily; hence, to neglect any of these qualities can lead to danger.

Titus 1:6-9 groups this descriptive list as family qualities he must have, negative character qualities he must not have and both positive character qualities and abilities he must have.

Since the church is the family of God, the home is the proving ground for those who serve as elders. The elder must be faithful in relationships for he is to be “the husband of one wife.” Literally, this is “a one woman man.” He is faithful to his wife. He must be able to teach and guide others into right ways. These things he first demonstrates in his family by leading his children to have faith in God.

“Since an overseer is entrusted with God’s work” he must not have the character flaws that “promote controversies rather than God’s work” (Titus 1:7). Compare this with 1 Timothy 1:3-5, which states that we should avoid things that “promote controversies rather than God’s work—which is by faith.” This is why he must not be overbearing, quick-tempered, given to drink, violent or dishonest. These qualities create turbulence, not the peaceful pursuit of God’s work.

It is not enough, though, for an elder to be a good natured, peaceable non-entity. He must also have positive qualities of leadership, ability and goodness if he is to be able to oversee God’s work. He must be helpful to people who are hurting. Do you notice how close the words “hospitable” and “hospital” are to each other? There is a reason for this. The elder must have a positive love for all things good. He must be self-controlled and disciplined in his own life. He must have a firm grip on the truths of the gospel and be able to use this knowledge to encourage others and to refute those who oppose it.

In looking at these qualities, some might think we are describing a spiritual superman. Not so! Rather, the elder is one whom the Holy Spirit has shaped into the likeness of Jesus. This is not a perfect likeness, for he is still a man – but he is a man under the control of the Holy Spirit as a disciple of Jesus who is growing in grace and knowledge. All of the “qualifications” are growth areas for the child of God.

To what degree must an elder have these? He must have each to a positive degree that will enable him to exert positive influence and leadership in the church. Since churches differ widely in the spiritual maturity and knowledge found within their membership, a man could well be an excellent choice to shepherd one church, but an inadequate one in a different congregation. In other words, these texts do not give absolutes by which we can measure the “degree” of qualification, other than to say each quality must be present in a positive degree.

A man does not gain these qualities overnight. The very use of the word elder suggests this. Though we tend to use this word as a title of office, its primary meaning is “older in age and experience.” When used of age, this word does not covey the negative ideas, such as senility and loss of powers, often associated with old age. These ideas are included in the Greek word geron (geron – from which we get gerontology). The word translated elder is presbeuteros (presbeuteros) which implies the experience and wisdom of one who is older.

With reference to age, elder is a relative term with no specific age indicated. However, among the Jews the age of 50 was a major landmark in life. It is probable that elder refers to those 50 or older. In my experience, few men much under 50 have the experience necessary to do the work of an elder.


  1. Popular use of the words elder, pastor, and bishop are different today from their use in the New Testament. How do they differ?
  2. How do the “qualifications of an elder” relate to his work?
  3. To what degree must the elder meet these qualifications? Some suggest it is not necessary for each elder to have all of the qualifications, but that the eldership collectively should have them all. Do you agree or disagree? Why?
  4. Can a married man with believing children be a good man and not be qualified as an elder? Explain your answer. (Are all good men skilled as teachers? Do they all have leadership qualities needed in a larger group?)
  5. Would it be possible for a man to be qualified as an elder in one congregation but not in another? If so, how and why?
  6. Why did Paul say the elder must be the husband of one wife and the father of believing children who are in subjection? Would it be possible for an unmarried man or a man without children to be qualified as an elder? If so, how? If not, why not?
  7. How does the Holy Spirit make a man an elder?

– (10) Deacons

– (8) Objectives of Leadership


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